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Wind turbines not catching on in the Keys

In an area where most of the residents pride themselves on being environmentally aware, the Florida Keys often are a lab for sustainability. That includes using wind turbines to generate electricity.

February will mark three years since Keys Energy Services, the electric company from the Seven Mile Bridge south through Key West, installed two at its Cudjoe Key substation. They don’t produce lots of energy, but they do produce energy.

One is 63 feet tall and the other 35 feet. The taller one has produced 5,039 kilowatt hours of energy since being installed and 124 kWh this month. The smaller turbine has produced 1,185 kWh in its lifetime and 23 kWh this month.

By comparison, solar panels at the Florida Keys Eco Discovery Center in Key West in 2010 have produced 238,286 kWH since being installed in 2010 and 2,732 kWh this month.

A house with a family of four could operate for about a month using 1,000 kWh.

“Our lesson here is that wind works but height is important,” said Keys Energy spokesman Julio Torrado. “In our area, solar is the best way to go. It’s had more success.”

The turbines were installed for $46,000 through a Clean Energy Act grant. Sea, Air, Land Technologies of Marathon furnished and installed the turbines after a bid process.

SALT founder Bob Williams said turbine warranties last two to five years, lower than the 25-year warranties for solar panels. Mechanical and electrical components are constantly exposed to the corrosive sea environment, needing more maintenance than solar panels.

“Even though the up-front cost of wind turbines are less, the investment value of solar is much more attractive over time,” Williams said. “The popularity of wind turbines in the U.S. has fallen off considerably as compared to the tremendous increase on solar [panels] this year.”

Torrado and Williams said no inquiries have been made for other wind turbines.

Still, Monroe County could alter existing rules to allow for taller turbines to be built.

Under county regulation, buildings and other structures cannot exceed 35 feet unless granted permission. County commissioners are reviewing the allowable height limits for buildings and alternative energy sources.

“People have brought up the fact that if we want to see wind power down here, we’d have to increase heights,” Commissioner David Rice said. “The difficulty with turbines I have, though, is that I have not seen enough evidence to see it work down here. I did some research years ago with people who installed them in Hawaii. Their conclusion was there’s not enough wind speeds for turbines to make sense here.”

Whether wind turbines populate the Keys in the future, the two on Cudjoe Key will continue to help offset costs, however slightly, for Keys Energy.